Want to do more to protect the planet? Start with your weekly food shop! In this blog post, Debra from Earth Made NI shares her top tips.

We know from chatting to lots of people across Northern Ireland and beyond that making simple swaps around their home to a more sustainable alternative can be relatively easy and lots of fun when the whole family gets involved. We have always felt the bathroom is the easiest place to start; a bar of soap instead of a plastic bottle of shower gel, or a bamboo toothbrush instead of a plastic one. However, when it comes to the food shop, sustainable choices can seem few and far between, and it can all get a little overwhelming. Read on for our top tips for a more sustainable food shop.

Imperfect is perfect

First up, let's get rid of this idea of pantry cupboards filled with fancy jars of loose grains, nuts, pasta, spices and herbs that we see on Pinterest and Instagram. Do you actually know anyone who’s kitchen cupboards look like that? Our guess is, probably not. The idea of zero waste and completely package free shopping is still relatively ‘new’ here in Northern Ireland. We say ‘new’ because of course, its actually pretty old school. Search back a few decades ago and ‘scoop shops’ were how people would shop before we as humans gained an insatiable appetite for convenience, pre-packaged and goods with a longer shelf life.

While zero waste stores are a little more accessible for our friends in Mainland UK, they are still pretty scarce here in good old Norn Iron and so we have to make do with what we have and be savvy. The key to a more sustainable grocery shop is to take it one small win at a time. Once your eyes are opened to the sheer volume of needless packaging on our groceries, it can be very overwhelming and discouraging but it doesn’t need to be. Celebrate those little wins, they are helping you get one step closer to the bigger picture and every little change makes a huge difference.

Don’t forget the bags

How many times have you arrived at the supermarket or local town centre and had that ‘Doh!’ moment... you’ve forgotten the shopping bags. We have all been there, some of us more than most. Let this be your number one step in your new sustainable shopping routine. Try and get into the habit of lifting the shopping bags before you leave the house. You could also opt for one of Madlug's Organic Cotton Totes instead!

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We try and keep a stash in our car just in case we have an unexpected trip to the shop. If we remember to bring our shopping bags on every weekly shop for a whole year, just think how many shopping bags we have saved from being produced. One simple step can have a huge benefit for our planet.

Fruit and veg

If you're keen to cut down on excess packaging, there’s no better place to start than the fruit and veg aisles. Think back to basics. Take a banana for example, nature has given the humble banana a thick and protective skin for a reason. So why on Earth would we put a bunch of bananas in one of those plastic produce bags that lurk at the ends of the fruit and veg aisle? Since trying to reduce our plastic footprint, we’ve found buying fruit and veg loose and unpackaged a great place to start. Not only are we no longer buying bags of apples or carrots, we are only buying the number of apples we are likely to eat in a week which means we can massively cut down on food waste too!

Another tip for loose fruit and veg is to pay close attention to the pricing. At a glance, loose produce can appear much more expensive than the pre-packaged alternative. A closer look may actually reveal that the price displayed for the loose item is per kg, rather than for a single item. If your buying lots of loose fruit and veg, string shopping bags are excellent as they can expand to hold all different shapes and sizes, but also won’t sweat your produce like some plastic bags might.

Watch out for super marketing

Supermarkets have heard the public loud and clear, we want less packaging, local produce, less carbon miles, and more transparency to enable us to make informed choices. This is where ‘green washing’ and tactical marketing strategies come in to play. Take ‘stretchy plastics’ for example such as bags for frozen foods, or bread bags. If you know that you can’t recycle those items locally with your Council, how strange that the big Supermarket players can suddenly offer to do this for you? Clever marketing can sometimes have consumers believe they are doing the responsible, sustainable thing by returning their specific packaging to the supermarket for recycling, when actually, the supermarket itself might not be recycling it at all. All that packaging they are collecting may very well be sent off on a boat to another country to ‘deal with’ and the supermarkets are left with none of the responsibility once they wash their hands of it. The bottom line is, if it sounds too good to be true, it might be, so do a little digging.

When it comes to recycling what our local councils can’t cope with, look for a responsible alternative such as a local teracycle point which offers more transparency on what happens to that waste. Supermarkets apply these marketing strategies not only to the sustainability of their packaging, but also to the products themselves. Take meat and fish for example. The front of the packet of salmon may say ‘Scottish’ salmon. However, turn to the back of the packet for a closer inspection and you might see that the salmon is actually sourced somewhere in Europe, and packaged in Scotland. Clever, very clever! Fear not, knowledge is our power as consumers and the wiser we become to these tactics, the smarter we are with how and where we spend our money. Which leads nicely to our last tip…

Support local

Supporting local greengrocers, delicatessens and butchers has a huge list of benefits. By supporting our local producers, we support small family run businesses within our local communities; we increase our local food security and rely on what we are able to grow and farm which is hugely beneficial in the island setting we have; we can trust where our fruit, vegetables and meat is sourced from and thus significantly reduce our carbon footprint in comparison with imported goods from the supermarket. We have found since supporting local producers, we’ve managed to cut down on even more packaging.

The local butchers and delicatessen are generally more than happy for you to bring your own reusable containers – it saves them using up their plastic bags. Ok, so the first time you ask, your cheeks might turn a shade more pink and people might wonder why you’ve brought your entire Tupperware collection for a day out, but, once you get over than initial ego wobble, it gets easier. We have been told that we’ve even inspired other people to start bringing their own containers too and we’ve started a ripple effect of reusable Tupperware making an appearance at the local butcher. Local green grocers are also great at reducing packaging too. You have more options for loose fruit and veg that is seasonal and locally grown, and most even have the option for weekly veg boxes to be delivered right to your door to save you a trip.

We hope you’ve found our tips helpful. If you are able to implement one of these in your grocery shop, it’s a little win for you and a huge win for our planet. Why not try one of these tips this week and see how you get on?

June 22, 2021 — Dave Linton

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